Cheetahs have been making the rounds of science news lately. Famous for their speed, they have in the past been clocked at 29 meters per second (nearly 65 miles per hour), making them the fastest animals on land – but that’s old news. A new study by A.M. Wilson and colleagues delved deep into the mechanics of the hunt with five wild cheetahs in Botswana, and their findings were a little surprising.
The cheetah still holds onto its place as the fastest land animal – the researchers recorded an impressive top speed of 25.9 m/s, or about 58 mph – but it turns out that the cheetah’s dexterity and maneuverability, not its phenomenal speed, hold the secret to its hunting success.
Wilson, et al. outfitted five wild cheetahs with GPS tracking collars that also contained accelerometers, to capture and transmit data on the cheetahs’ movements. The researchers used the data to reconstruct the speed, acceleration, and maneuvering in each of 367 runs over the course of 17 months; they also tracked the terrain of each hunting attempt by overlaying the GPS data onto Google Earth.
When most people think of a running cheetah, they probably envision a high-speed chase through open grasslands. In reality, about half of the runs recorded in this experiment took place among shrubs or dense vegetation, and cheetahs hunted about as successfully in these environments as they did on open ground. Although each of the five cheetahs reached speeds of 20 m/s (about 45 mph) or higher at least once during the 17 month study, during most hunts they only got up to a leisurely 14.9 m/s (about 33 mph) – although that would still leave Olympic sprinters in the dust.
According to this study, a cheetah on the chase only runs at top speed for a second or two; once it pulls near its quarry, the cheetah decelerates, and this is where the chase reaches its critical moments. At a slower speed, the cheetah can employ its maneuvering prowess, using large claws, high-traction footpads, and a low posture to grip the ground and make sharp, fast turns, in order to subdue its agile prey. The deceleration phase of the chase is the most important – paradoxically, the researchers found that greater deceleration was correlated with greater likelihood of catching the prey in the end. Maneuverability is more important than speed in the final moments of a chase.
Cheetahs are undeniably powerful runners. The fibers in the running muscles of wild cheetahs shorten faster than fibers in similar-sized muscles in other running animals – the researchers mention racing greyhounds and horses, for comparison – giving cheetahs extraordinary power of acceleration. But in the end, the key to the cheetah’s chase isn’t in sheer power. It’s all in the control.